Page 1

Published by Sidebrow Books P.O. Box 86921 Portland, OR 97286 Š2020 by Kim-Anh Schreiber All rights reserved Cover art by Sojourner Truth Parsons Book design by Jason Snyder ISBN: 1-940090-11-3 ISBN-13: 978-1-940090-11-5 first edition


first printing

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 s i d e b ro w b o o k s 022 p r i n t e d i n t h e u n i t e d s tat e s

Sidebrow Books titles are distributed by Small Press Distribution Titles are available directly from Sidebrow at

Sidebrow is a member of the Intersection Incubator, a program of Intersection for the Arts ( providing fiscal sponsorship, incubation, and consulting for artists. Contributions to Sidebrow are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.


sidebrow books • 2 0 2 0 • portla nd & san francisco

“Down below there is no exit. Yet neither is there a dead end. Instead I see breaking waves, white foam shimmering in the twilight and my own uncanny reflection. There is no wall at the end of the passage reminding us of the wreckage of the past, but a reflective glass, a screen for transient beauty, a profane illumination.”

— Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

For my grandparents, and my father, and my brother, and my favorite aunts: who made my future shine bright.





COLD OPEN The first time Ông and Bà went back to Vietnam I was 10 years old. It had been twenty years since they’d left and the United States had just lifted its trade embargo. They were gone for three weeks and when they came home we sat on the floor of their bedroom as they took packages out of their luggage one by one, everything stuffed into large Ziploc bags: photos, heirlooms, documents, things left behind that someone, someone I had never met, had saved for them. I sat in my favorite aunt’s lap and we pored over the photos for hours. At one point my mom found her birth certificate and said, shocked, “I’m thirty. I’m not thirty-one — I’m thirty!” My mom and my aunt laughed wildly. I laughed too, because I would do everything they’d do.

At the time, I thought we were laughing because my grandparents had had so many children that they’d forgotten how old they all were. Only later did I realize that my mom’s age was wrong due to a Vietnamese system that begins life at conception rather than birth. In fact, the longer I sit with this scene, the more I realize that it continues to become fleshed out with the things I now know. The story grows as I grow. I didn’t realize, for example, the significance of that trip. I knew where they had come from, and I knew how they had fled, but I did not necessarily understand that they couldn’t go back, or that they were living in exile because at the time I had no idea what exile meant, and in a sense when we were together we were always in Vietnam, or more accurately, “Vietnam,” an idea filtered through memory, language, and atmosphere: food, smell,


and music. I did not know that I was born during the first major waves of Vietnamese immigration, that the shopping centers in the enclaves we frequented were still being built, nor did I know that I would look back and think that that era was the height of a certain formation of VietnameseAmericanness, a moment which straddled the line between memories of Vietnam being near and far, new identities and sensibilities departing and arriving, when families had multiple generations reflecting multiple forms of assimilation. When we all lived together. I did not know that we were referred to as “New Americans.” Being born in America, and raised in America, I did not feel new, and my world was complete. I did not realize until much later that I had spent my whole life making one world out of many different pieces. I don’t remember anything in those Ziploc bags either: none of the photos, heirlooms, or documents. All I remember is laughter: wild and free. Maybe I had once made up a fantasy memory, that after a while became a real memory. That happens a lot. In a way, memory is an evocative curator: Are the individual images all that important, or do they blur into a utopia of the past? All that is important, my memory seems to decide, is that there were tangible memories, documents of identity, and physical inheritances that had been lost and were now restored. I wonder what that restoration feels like: Is it like old software on a new computer? Or is it like hearing a song you used to love and have forgotten, when rediscovery feels just as good as discovery? I cannot know the experience of my grandmother, because we did not share a language of adequate complexity or nuance to describe it. But even if we did, as I do with my mother and aunt, what extraordinary effort would it take to expand and elasticize language to communicate from one person to another what has been lost and found? I’ve never encountered anything that was in those plastic bags again. No one has ever shown me an object and said, “This came back from Vietnam.” I’ve heard stories, but I haven’t seen a single image of my mother as a child,


nor my grandmother, nor any image of any former house. The scene from that day has become a device I return to when I want to think about the material of my inheritance: gestures I copied without understanding why, a longing for joy and laughter as a release. Images, which don’t reference what’s preserved on their surfaces, but evasive gleaners or ghosts, leading me towards walls, revelations, or refuges. In my imagination I pore over each faded, fading document. They become sites for my own animation, which always reflect “me” more than “what really happened,” “what was really on the images,” or “what they remember which I never saw,” which is not my story to tell, and which, frankly, would be impossible. I was only a child, and in terms of this story, am always the child.


RULES OF STYLE The 1977 Japanese film House begins with Gorgeous posing, wrapped in a sheet, surrounded by candles. The sheet is a palimpsest. Her best friend, Fantasy, holding a camera, is disarmed. “It’s hot,” says Gorgeous, in an echoey voice. “Hurry!” Fantasy takes several pictures. With each shot, the light changes, the atmosphere changes, and Gorgeous changes, like a mood ring. When the photo shoot’s over, she removes her sheet and becomes a teen again. She blows out the candles. The “set” disappears into a science lab. What Fantasy sees is hidden from the viewer. What her face expresses is illegible, regarding the strange and inexplicable, wearing the most ambient expression as if she’s been crossed by a ghost. “Fantasy,” asks Gorgeous. “Why were you staring at me?” “Because you looked like a witch in a horror movie!” The girls explode into laughter.

When I first saw House, directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, I had spent the previous months recovering from a bicycle accident in which, running a stop sign to make a left turn, a car clipped me and my bike, sending me flying over the handlebars. I landed on my left hip, twisting my back at the sacral joint, the tailbone, before the car sped away. At first, maybe because of adrenaline screaming through my body, I didn’t feel much at all. I would spin a long, noir-ish story describing the events of that evening, whenever anyone would ask me if I was doing okay,


which was my way of saying that I was okay. But then, my body began to feel things: low levels of all-over pain and panic. I went to the doctor and was asked — as I was asked over the next two and a half years of medical treatment — to quantify my level of pain. And even though my pain was always changing in character and intensity, my number was always consistent: 3 or 4, as though my body had psychological shelters to shield against pain, as though I could always imagine worse. I was told that young people often say 3 or 4, and this has to do with a high tolerance for pain, and a certain illiteracy in its presence. When you really think about it, many different somatic intensities fall under the umbrella of what we call “pain.” Pain is an abstraction: It can be dull, sharp, throbbing, stinging, pounding, or smarting. Pain can be shallow or deep, soft or hard. It can throb, burn, itch, or chafe. I believe it would be best translated through onomatopoeia, so that the speaker and the listener may have a common visceral experience. And then there is psychic pain, and what happens when it intermingles with physical pain, when it’s felt in the body, or when it slows the body down and stalls the immune system. Contrary to the language I was given (and asked to use) to describe my pain, the type I felt could not be pointed to and said, “It’s here.” I was recommended a lawyer, who set me up with a chiropractor. I went because I did not know how to navigate my own health insurance, didn’t understand what it covered in this particular situation, and I couldn’t afford for it to not cover everything, and my lawyer said he would pay for all of it, no questions asked. After taking some X-rays, the chiropractor said bluntly, “Your spine is injured. Look — ,” he gripped a model of the spine and demonstrated how my vertebrae would grind against one another over time: twisting and grinding, twisting and grinding again. The more I was asked to pay attention to it, the more my lower back throbbed, until the pain shot through my shoulders and toes. “The vertebrae allow the passage of the spinal cord from the medulla oblongata to the base of the lumbar region,”


he demonstrated. “Nerve endings travel outward from the brain, through the spinal cord, to the various areas of the body, like a communication highway. When you have a spinal injury, nerves can be damaged, breaking down the communication highway, making it harder to get vital messages to your organs, making it easier for your organs to break down. See what I mean? Your spine is the seat of your soul.” My heart raced when the chiropractor asked me to describe the pain, and my back flared when asked to locate it. Did my communication highway also break down in this accident? I wondered. The stress of this initial intake session would come to operate as an amplifying technology, causing my back to spasm from the tension produced by the suggestion that my body was changed forever and that I would always be injured, that I was no longer in charge, that, contrary to the idea of my body I previously had, in which it was an ecosystem harmoniously housing the joint, the joint seemed to be destroying the ecosystem. Was my body like a row of dominoes, just waiting for a piece to fall? In a way, this initial intake session sent my injury on a years-long course of recovery in which pain sparked from psychic stress amplified my injury and thus became “real.” The chiropractor promised he would make me better. I laid down with my head in a little hole and he cracked my back. He remarked, “It makes sense that you’re experiencing panic right now. The impact might have unlocked stress your spine has stored for a very long time. “You know,” he mused, “the spine remembers everything.”

Pain, I found, disrupted the illusory continuity of my body, which I had previously seen as both separate from the world and separate from my mind. After the accident, that all changed, because my injury was emotional and my pain was as much ambient as locatable. Soon I began to see my spine in everyday objects: in a vape, in an ice cube tray, in a 2 x 4 piece of wood,


in iPad display stands. Around the same time, news reports began surfacing of refugees arriving in boats on the shores of Greek islands. I read them obsessively, in my bed. My body was still, unmoving, but I saw my spine as a boat. A carrier of memories across time. And I saw my memories like I saw my spine: fractured, but unlocked; in need of, as my physical therapist would say, “articulation.”

And so when I first watched House, I saw my spine in every cut and seam — a communication highway. That which connects disparate shots and scenes to create an illusion of continuity. The biggest privilege of inhabiting a body, I learned, was to not even notice it was being inhabited. To fit perfectly inside the home one is confined to: your world.

In that first scene of House, Fantasy takes Gorgeous’s picture in a square frame nested within a standard rectangular frame. At one minute and twenty seconds, after removing her sheet, Gorgeous fluffs her hair and falls backwards, “clicking into” the background frame, as if the background frame has been waiting for the foreground frame to catch up to it. Suddenly the two separate, overlaid shots cohere into one. Watching that shot, I thought: That is what I want for my body. That is what I want for my memories. I felt that in watching House, in watching its unreality and discontinuity, I was seeing something fundamentally true. Something my spine remembered. But what?

I watched the version of House translated and distributed by Criterion Collection, which describes the film as a “hallucinatory head trip about a schoolgirl who travels with six classmates to her ailing aunt’s creaky country home and comes face-to-face with evil spirits, a demonic house


cat, a bloodthirsty piano, and other ghoulish visions… Equally absurd and nightmarish, House might have been beamed to Earth from some other planet.” I’d summarize the basic plot structure as: Following her father’s announcement that he is remarrying, Gorgeous and her friends — Sweet, Melody, Prof, Fantasy, Mac, and Kung Fu — head to her mother’s childhood home for the summer, where they are hunted and eaten alive by her aunt’s cannibalistic ghost, who, still waiting for her fiancé to return from the war, consumes all of the unmarried girls who come to visit her. As the film’s lore goes, the film company Toho, noted for producing and distributing the films of Akira Kurosawa as well as the Godzilla franchise, approached Obayashi, a successful TV commercial director and experimental filmmaker, and suggested he write a film that could be a “Japanese version of Jaws” — which, as I see it, could mean any number of things: A summer box office hit. Teeth in the water. A monster under a surface designed to provoke delight. The ocean as void, as appetite, as shape-shifting substance that spreads and seeps into every surface available to it. But to conceive of his Japanese version of Jaws, Obayashi asked his preadolescent daughter Chigumi what would make a good scary movie. Sitting at the mirror brushing her hair, she answered, “If my reflection… could jump out of the mirror and eat me.”

This iconic scene — the cannibalistic reflection, the girl brushing her hair — is replicated in the film and foundational to its lore, at least in the English language press surrounding the film’s rerelease by Janus Films and Criterion Collection in 2010. This repetition might be because this mirror scene is at the inception of the film’s imagistic universe or because of the limitations of myth, marketing, or memory. Also foundational to the film’s lore is Nobuhiko Obayashi’s childhood: Born in Onomichi, a city located near Hiroshima Prefecture, in 1938, Obayashi has said that when the


atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, all of his close childhood friends died. His overall creative project, it could be inferred, is to convey the experience of war in service of a message for peace, to a generation who grew up in a period of peace, because peace, Obayashi has said, came from the pleasure of forgetting. He has called House “a fantasy with the atomic bomb as a theme.” In the retrospective making-of documentary Constructing a House, he has called the “exaggerated and beautiful world of fantasy” “our generation’s version of a horror film.”